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The Rider tackles toxic masculinity of cowboys

Director Chloé Zhao cuts through the rugged masculinity of the gunslinging cowboy figure in her contemporary western, in which she explores the sensitive complexities of manhood.

By Caitlin Danaher, Third Year English

Director Chloé Zhao cuts through the rugged masculinity of the gunslinging cowboy figure in her contemporary western, in which she explores the sensitive complexities of manhood.

The Rider follows Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a bucking bronco rider who is struggling with a drastic lifestyle change after falling from his horse during a rodeo competition leaves him unable to ride or train horses. Set in the breathtaking wild western plains of South Dakota, we watch Brady refuse his doctor’s advice to adopt a simpler life, as he instead continues to ride bucking broncos which ultimately causes vomit-inducing seizures and a return to hospital.

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Fascinatingly, Zhao casts entirely non-professional actors in the film, something I personally didn’t realise until the credits rolled as I discovered that Brady’s father and sister are played by Jandreau’s real family (Tim and Lilly Jandreau). The tale is also based on true events, as Jandreau himself suffered from a riding accident that left him with a metal plate in his skull. This semi-biographical subject matter offers Zhao’s film a beautifully close intimacy that often eludes big budget Hollywood westerns.

Through Brady’s narrative, Zhao explores the notion of masculine pride and the consequences that arise when this is stripped away. When his accident causes Brady to no longer be able to ride, Zhao sympathetically presents a man in crisis- a lost soul yearning for the return of his glory days in the rodeo as he soullessly stacks shelves in a local supermarket. His riding defines his manhood, and he’s even seen as a local celebrity- with young aspiring riders asking him for photographs as he perhaps misguidedly encourages them to follow his dangerous pursuits.

Toxic masculinity is rife within Brady’s rodeo community - as they sit around a fire in the prairie they discuss the injuries they have sustained through their riding careers, with one friend joking, ‘by NFL standards I should be dead’. This disturbingly boastful delight in one’s ability to bear pain reveals the oppressive masculine standards associated with these young cowboys, showing any form of weakness - whether physical or emotional - is forbidden.

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The conversation around the fire turns to talk of their friend Lane Scott (Scott himself), as they passively speak of his rehabilitation and pray to God that he will be able to ‘get back on his horse’. Indeed, when Brady goes to visit Lane his accident has left him severely mentally and physically disabled; he is unable to speak and struggles to even lift his head up. Jandreau’s performance is particularly heart-wrenching in his scenes with Scott, as he reveals his selfless compassion and love for his incapacitated friend the viewer is helplessly aligned with Brady’s sympathetic character.

This sensitive side is also clear when Brady is with his horses; transforming them from wild beasts into loyal steeds through his delicate handling and heartfelt respect for the animals. When Brady has to heartbreakingly kill his own injured horse whose leg has been mangled by barbed wire, he explains to his younger sister that killing this injured animal is the most humane thing to do, as the horse ‘won’t be able to run and play with his friends’. Just like the injured horse, Brady reveals that his own life is worthless if he can no longer ride – something that will leave a lump in the throat of even the hardiest of viewers.


The confrontation between Brady and his father that ends the film is nothing short of heartbreaking. When Brady chooses to ignore his father’s warnings to stay at home his father shakily shouts, ‘Go kill yourself then’, through which Tim Jandreau masterfully conveys the agonizing fear of a father potentially losing his son that he is forced to mask with an emotionless masculinity. As Brady waits for his turn to ride the bronco he must decide whether to ‘cowboy up’ and ignore his body’s need for rest, or whether finally giving up his dreams for the sake of his family and friends is in fact the bravest act of all.

Featured Image: IMDb / The Rider

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